As the teacher of a class titled Digital Communication in the 21st Century at North Garland High School, Greg Morrissey teaches his students how to think outside the box when using state-of-the-art computer software. He also teaches them how to communicate properly, to take advantage of their time and to have confidence in themselves.
But it was his students that gave Morrissey support and confidence when he fought a long and excruciating battle with cancer that nearly claimed his life multiple times. When it was over, cancer had weakened him severely and had taken Morrissey’s entire left arm and shoulder. But, it was a price Morrissey was willing to pay to survive Stage 4 cancer a total of three times over the course of just a year and a half.
It was during the 2005-2006 school year, in the midst of December, that Morrissey first felt the bump in his left shoulder. The bump was no larger than a nickel, so Morrissey wasn’t too worried when he couldn’t immediately get a doctor to take a look at it.
However, within the span of three months, the nickel-sized bump had enlarged into the size of a lemon. When doctors finally examined Morrissey, the prognosis wasn’t good. He had Stage 4 Squamous Cell Melanoma of an unknown origin that was more aggressive than anything doctors had ever seen before. It was the beginning of a very difficult time for the Morrissey family.
“When Greg was diagnosed, our daughter was in fifth grade,” said Karen Morrissey. “How do you tell your child that Daddy has cancer?”
Surgeons removed the tumor from his shoulder at the beginning of the summer of 2006. But, before the summer was even over, the tumor had returned; only this time, the tumor was right beside his carotid artery. And once more, the tumor quickly evolved into Stage 4.
Doctors placed Morrissey on a rigorous schedule of chemotherapy and as much radiation as his body could handle. Morrissey had always been athletic, active and healthy – he used to run five to six miles a day. Now though, his treatment ravaged his body. His weight plummeted from 225 pounds to about 125 pounds.
Despite all this treatment, the tumor in Morrissey’s arm wasn’t shrinking. The doctors decided that cutting out the tumor was again the only option. This time, there was a major complication. The tumor was pressed right up against his carotid artery; removing it would leave Morrissey with a dead left arm. There was one other available option: amputation.
“I didn’t really dwell on it,” recalls Morrissey. “I had to make a decision, and I felt it would be a hindrance; that it would get in my way and slow me down. I knew I would have to retrain myself to write and draw right-handed, since I was a left-handed artist.”
Morrissey had his arm removed in January of 2007. He spent three months in the hospital recuperating and regaining his strength and by the time he left the hospital, it was March. Looking back on it, Morrissey says he can’t recall much of that time.
“There are times back then that I don’t remember,” admitted Morrissey. “They had me on so much medication and with the chemo and the radiation, it all just blurs together.”
However, Morrissey does remember what happened next. In the summer of 2007, just a few months after being released in the hospital, cancer reared its ugly head once again. This time, the cancer was in his right lower back. And once again, Morrissey had to undergo chemotherapy and radiation.
“You know why people give up,” Morrissey said. “It’s a tiring, painful fight. But, I never gave up. I hate to lose. Besides, my wife, Karen, wouldn’t let me get down.”
And, indeed, Morrissey never gave up. He continued to teach at North Garland while going through chemotherapy and radiation, even though, as Morrissey says, he had to throw up in a trashcan every five minutes. And finally, for the third and final time, Morrissey’s cancer surgeon removed the cancerous tumor from his body in December of 2007.
Flash forward to the present – in November 2012, Morrissey will have been cancer-free for four years. And while he and his family are extremely overjoyed by this, he doesn’t want to celebrate quite yet.
“Doctors say the magical number is five years,” Morrissey said. “If you’re cancer-free for five years, it’s likely it’s gone for good. So I don’t want to jinx it.”
Morrissey also knows he had plenty of help battling through cancer during those torturous times. Aside from the constant love and encouragement from his wife and kids, Morrissey is also eternally grateful to his neighborhood community for all the support he’s received.
“The community responded immediately to help me,” Morrissey said. “We live in Hollywood/Santa Monica neighborhood and people we didn’t even know at the time were stopping by to help out. They were giving us gift cards so my wife didn’t have to cook and could spend more time with me.
“It was a great sense of community. They had passion for someone they didn’t know all that well and that really drove me get better.”
“We had the support of our neighbors, our church, our work, our friends and even strangers,” add Karen Morrissey. “Though the site LotsofHelpingHands.com, our friends set up a page with a calendar for dinner delivery, someone to help get Kyle around and people to stay with Greg while I went to work.”
School and his students were also a major form of support for Morrissey. Teaching helped take his mind off his situation and he said his students were there for him when he needed it most. Cancer didn’t stop him from being a good teacher either, as he was awarded the RISD Teacher of the Year award in 2007-2008.
According to Morrissey, now that he’s hopefully put cancer behind him for good, he has a new mission in life.
“I was to communicate to my students that life isn’t always fair,” Morrissey said. “But, it’s how you move forward and overcome those obstacles in life that define who you are. Students need to learn to believe in themselves.”
Just as Morrissey, his students, his family and his community believed in him.